honey bee behavior

Bottom line: bees are so cautious, they often don’t fly

Flowers thrashing in the wind are difficult for bees to work.

To us, it may seem like bees fly all the time. Instead, they are quite cautious, limiting their flights to ideal conditions whenever possible.

Unlike lots of humans, bees know their limitations. And when it comes to flying, bees opt for discretion. When you think about it, most bees are superb fliers that proceed with caution.

You may think, “But whenever I see bees, they are flying.” Yes, that’s probably true because that’s when you see them. We rarely see them as they snuggle in their hives or underground nests.

Why bees don’t fly in the rain

Bees do not fly in the rain because wet wings don’t work well. When a honey bee’s wings get wet, they become heavy, and that extra load decreases the bee’s ability to generate lift. In addition, the excess weight can make it more difficult for the bee to navigate and steer accurately.

Rain also makes it more difficult for bees to find and collect nectar and pollen. In fact, pollen can wash away in heavy rain and nectar can become diluted. At some point, the nectar is no longer worth the energy spent to collect it. Furthermore, evaporation is a cooling process that can drop the bees’ body temperature. If it drops far enough, the bee may become unable to fly.

In general, bees prefer to stay dry and will only fly in the rain if they absolutely must, such as when they need to defend their hive or find emergency food. But they also seem able to distinguish a brief shower from a full-blown storm and continue to forage in light rain.

Why bees are cautious about the wind

Bees can fly in windy conditions, but they often stay home instead. Wind can disrupt their flight pattern, making navigation more difficult. It’s like sailing a boat in a strong cross current: you’re trying to go in one direction while the current is pushing you in another. Navigating becomes a constant struggle for compensation.

Wind also makes it harder for the bees to control their movements. Think back to that sailboat: You’ll have more control issues in gusty, shifty winds than you’ll have in a light and steady breeze. Same for bees.

Also, flowers that whip around are harder to work than flowers that hold still. And if the bees get blown from the flowers, they must circle around and try again, wasting energy the entire time. Then too, wind can blow the pollen from flowers making it impossible to collect.

And finally, wind can also be a sign of inclement weather, which may cause bees to seek shelter in the hive to prepare for rain. Scientists believe honey bees predict the weather based on temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and carbon dioxide levels. A few nasty gusts of wind probably help, too.

Darkness is not safe either

Honey bees can fly during the day and at dusk, but they do not fly in complete darkness. Why? Because they rely on visual cues to navigate and locate resources. During the day, bees use their excellent vision to locate flowers and water, something they cannot do at night.

In addition, the bees use the sun as a reference point to navigate to and from distant flower patches. They rely on the sun for orienting themselves and maintaining a consistent direction while flying. In the dark with no sun to guide them, they can quickly go astray and perhaps die. Overall, honey bees fly during the day when there is enough light to see.

Go For the Dark

If you ever find yourself trying to flee from a persistent guard bee, duck into a dark garage or shed. Most of the time, a honey bee will not try to follow you because the dark space is disorienting.

Why bees don’t fly in the cold

Cold temperatures keep bees from flying, but different species have different levels of cold tolerance. Famous for flying in the cold are bumble bees, some mason bees, and some mining bees.

Honey bees seem most comfortable at or above 55 F, although if the sun is warming their environment or beating down on their hive, honey bees will venture out earlier.

Problems occur when a bee gets too cold. A bee will get stiff and unable to move once her body temperature drops too low. Because of this, the bees stay close to home in cold weather. A colony of honey bees may take orientation flights on a nippy day, but they go back inside until the day gets warm enough for a foraging flight.

Bees adapt when necessary

When you think about it, bees are so tiny that a drop of water or a frigid breeze can become life-threatening. It’s no wonder that most bees prefer to fly in calm, warm, dry, and sunny weather when it is easiest and safest for them to be on the wing.

Still, bees are intrepid. They can and do adapt to a variety of unfavorable conditions and fly for short periods when it becomes necessary. So expect to see exceptions and do not become alarmed if their behavior seems “off.”

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  • That ” most comfortable at or above 55 F” is a new one. “Everybody says” they don’t fly below 50F, although I see them out and about down to 48F. Well you’ll see me out and about down below freezing, but I’m most comfortable in the 60s.
    Also, I had just gotten to HBSuite in my end of year donations list, when your New Post email popped in with its convenient link. To all you other readers, if this site has value to you, there’s a donation button up there. Don’t be afraid to use it.

    • Roberta,

      That is a kind thing for you to say. Thank you so much! Even more, thank you for being a regular reader. Writers are often instructed to write for an individual or a small group to make it more personal. You’re definitely one of those I write for, so thanks for showing up!

    • I have lost 3 hives in the past 3 years. Twice they just left the hive. This year they died.

  • Good article, one of the wierd things I’ve noticed is the 55 degree flying temperatures. I’ve observed in my colonies that early in the spring they will often be pretty active even down to 45 degrees but as the summer wears on, the get closer and closer to that 55 degree mark….

    • John,

      That sounds like me. On the first warmish day of spring, I go out in a t-shirt. Later in the year, that same temperature would put me in a jacket. Maybe bees have similar psychology! In any case, I agree with you. I’ve seen that behavior, too.

  • I have a heated stock bucket (available at any farm/ranch store) filed with water covered with wine corks. It’s out there all year long. Year-’round water helps ensure my bees never get into the habit of foraging for water in a neighbor’s hot tub. I’ve seen bees in that bucket in temperatures as low as 44 degrees. At 48 degrees, there are often over a hundred bees on the corks.

    • Blaine,

      So interesting. How warm is the water? How far from your hives? This could be a useful water solution for people with neighbors.

  • It’s a good idea to hydrated own honeybees on your property, but the water source need to be placed at least 15-20 feet from hive, otherwise they will not making attraction source point…

    • Charles,

      Of course. As I say in the last paragraph, “They can and do adapt to a variety of unfavorable conditions and fly for short periods when it becomes necessary.” But on most days at most times of the year, you will not see your flying around in the dark.

  • Hey Rusty (and Granny Roberta),

    I try to take note of the lowest temps my bees will venture out here in NE Wyoming and SE Montana. As long as the sun is out and minimal wind, some will be out even below freezing. If they stay too long or make the mistake of landing in the snow, they’re usually doomed. When above freezing, they often seem to be searching for water and will congregate at melted snow, especially on warm shingles (the dog house). I credit their adapting to this environment on several generations of queens created and raised right here.